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Nature, Red in Tooth and Claw


A long time ago you may recall I blogged that hens carry partial DNA of dinosaurs. Watching a nature programme with one of the Gillyboys I think I may have discovered a bird with a beautiful face but a serious attitude problem that may be one step closer to the long extinct dinosaurs. The Cassowary. Perhaps you like me were not aware of this seriously dangerous bird. Thankfully for me, they live on the other side of the world, in Australia. The tv presenter entered the birds’ enclosure armed with little more than a large garden rake and was told to ensure he kept the birds in front of him At All Times. It was only a matter of seconds before the poor camera man, focussed on getting action shots, got a little more action than he bargained for. It was dramatic stuff. He survived thanks to the quick responses of the park keepers.
The cassowaries are ratites, very large flightless birds, native to the tropical forests of New Guinea, nearby islands, and northeastern Australia. The most common of these, the Southern Cassowary, is the third tallest and second heaviest living bird, smaller only than the ostrich and emu.
Cassowaries feed mainly on fruit, although all species are truly omnivorous and will take a range of other plant food including shoots, grass seeds, and fungi in addition to invertebrates and small vertebrates. Cassowaries are very shy, but when provoked they are capable of inflicting injuries to dogs and people, although fatalities are extremely rare.
Cassowaries have small wings with stiff keratinous quills, like porcupine quills. A claw is on each second finger. A cassowary’s three-toed feet have sharp claws. The second toe, the inner one sports a dagger-like claw that is 125 millimetres long. This claw is particularly fearsome since cassowaries sometimes kick humans and animals with their enormously powerful legs.
Cassowaries can run up to 31 mph through the dense forest. They can jump up to 1.5 metres and they are good swimmers, crossing wide rivers and swimming in the sea as well. So if you ind yourself being chased by one for these beasties your best bet is to climb a tree, and fast!
They have horn-like but soft and spongy crests called casques on their heads. These consist of “a keratinous skin over a core of firm, cellular foam-like material”. Several purposes for the casques have been proposed. One possibility is that they are secondary sexual characteristics. Other suggestions include that they are used to batter through underbrush, as a weapon for dominance disputes, or as a tool for pushing aside leaf litter during foraging. The latter three are disputed by biologist Andrew Mack, whose personal observation suggests that the casque amplifies deep sounds. Who needs Beats Headphones? However, the earlier article by Crome and Moore says that the birds do lower their heads when they are running “full tilt through the vegetation, brushing saplings aside and occasionally careening into small trees. The casque would help protect the skull from such collisions”.From an engineering perspective the wedge-shaped casque is also the most efficient way to protect the head by deflecting falling fruit. As cassowaries live on fallen fruit they spend a lot of time under trees where seeds the size of golfballs or larger are dropping from heights of up to 30 metres. Mack and Jones also speculate that the casques play a role in either sound reception or acoustic communication. Their “boom” is the lowest known bird call, and is on the edge of human hearing.
The average lifespan of wild cassowaries is believed to be about 40 to 50 years.


Cassowaries have a reputation for being dangerous to people and domestic animals. During World War II American and Australian troops stationed in New Guinea were warned to steer clear of them. In his book Living Birds of the World from 1958, ornithologist Thomas E. Gilliard wrote:
“The inner or second of the three toes is fitted with a long, straight, murderous nail which can sever an arm or eviscerate an abdomen with ease. There are many records of natives being killed by this bird.” Attacks usually arise out of humans hand feeding the bird, or protecting nesting areas or chicks.
One documented human death was caused by a cassowary on 6 April 1926. 16-year-old Phillip McClean and his brother, aged 13, came across a cassowary on their property and decided to try to kill it by striking it with clubs. The bird kicked the younger boy, who fell and ran away as his older brother struck the bird. The cassowary then charged and knocked the older McClean to the ground and kicked him in the neck, opening a 1.25 cm wound which may have severed his carotid artery. The boy managed to escape, but died shortly afterwards as a result of his injuries.
For a shy bird that mostly lives on fruit, the Cassowary certainly is well armoured and not to be confronted. As Lord Tennyson says “Nature red in tooth and claw

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